Critical maintenance backlog on navigation channel continues to mount

Muskogee Phoenix

Aug. 05–A multimodal transportation infrastructure provides area manufacturers access to global markets, but there is a growing concern about the failure of the aging inland navigation system.

The cost of addressing the backlog of critical maintenance projects along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System has increased 43 percent during the past two years — from about $100 million in 2015 to about $143 million. A critical maintenance project is defined as one for which there is 50 percent or greater chance of failure during the next five years.

A task force assembled by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2013 determined the temporary closure of the navigation channel due to a malfunction or system failure would have an economic impact of $2.9 million a day. Regional job losses due to the closure of the navigation channel, according to the task force’s 2015 report, would total 11,836 with 8,743 of those occurring in Oklahoma.

Muskogee Port Director Scott Robinson said this backlog has been a growing concern for about 10 years. But officials have been hesitant to discuss the problem publicly because of concerns that it might hinder business recruiting efforts.

“But we know if we don’t talk publicly about it, and stakeholders and our congressional staff and members don’t understand the importance of it, then nothing will ever be done to fix it,” Robinson said. “It’s a balancing act — we don’t want to scare anybody, but we have to be mindful that something has got to give here.”

Robinson, who traveled to Washington earlier this summer with representatives from the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said hopes for an infrastructure spending bill appear to be dimming as the year progresses. And while the new administration “has made positive statements about inland waterways,” he said “it’s hard to imagine what might come out of any of that.”

U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin expressed optimism about Congress’ ability to pass all 12 annual appropriations bills before Oct. 1 — the beginning of the federal government’s fiscal year. The Westville Republican said money is and would be available in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appropriations to fund previously authorized MKARNS projects.

But Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District representative said Corps officials have sole discretion about how its appropriated funds are spent, and national security trumps commerce. Mullin said the power to direct expenditures was stripped from the legislative branch “since we did away with earmarks.”

“We can no longer do what we call line-item appropriations, which is what the states do,” Mullin said. “So what we’re working on right now — and one thing that I am working on very strongly right now — is … at least allow us to bring back line-item appropriations so we can directly tell the Corps … what needs to take priority in our state and here’s the money for that.”

As an example, Mullin referenced congressional approval in 2004 of increasing the depth of the navigational channel, which stretches from Catoosa to the Mississippi River, from nine to 12 feet. He said all the requisite studies have been completed, but the project — one state transportation officials say would bring economic growth to the region — never has been funded.

“What I’m doing is showing the critical backlogs that have happened with the Corps of Engineers when we did away with the ability to do line-item appropriations and how that backlog has increased,” Mullin said. “We haven’t been diversifying our dollars throughout the country from state to state …, we have been spending the bulk of our money on only three or four projects.”

Rodney Beard, navigation projects manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa, said the district is able to “peck away at that big list of critical maintenance projects” with the annual appropriations it receives for operations and maintenance. But available funding falls short of the aging system’s needs.

“So we might knock out a project with a chunk of money we get one fiscal year but … at the end of the year when we start re-evaluating all of our projects, we will find several other things that become a priority,” Beard said. “As we address some problems, new ones crop up and that is how the critical maintenance backlog continues to grow.”

Beard said the district also performs routine maintenance with annual funding to keep the critical maintenance backlog from growing any faster than it is. He said those tasks include sandblasting and painting exposed metal and other parts at locks and dams and other key features that keep navigation operational.

“It’s not like we just say this gate fails if we don’t get funding, or this gate during the next five years, it’s going to fail and we’re just going to watch that happen,” Beard said. “Not on my watch: We stay very in tune with our maintenance — what is critical and what we need to take care of with the limited dollars we do receive.”

Robinson said Gov. Mary Fallin has sent letters to the president and Sen. Jim Inhofe, requesting the navigation channel’s critical maintenance backlog be addressed. He said the governor of Arkansas has asked the administration to move forward with the 12-foot-channel project, but Robinson said there may be projects of greater concern.

Members of the Oklahoma Port Task Force found the greatest threat to MKARNS and shippers who rely on the 445-mile navigation channel for commerce is the potential merging of the White River Entrance Channel and the natural Arkansas River. Task force members state in a report of their findings that “MKARNS would fail to exist” should that phenomenon occur.

“Congressional appropriations for operations and maintenance have fallen far short of the mark for decades,” task force members wrote in a September 2015 report. “Without a significant change in the nation’s funding priorities, segments of the inland waterway system are subject to a ‘fix-as-fail’ strategy that poses great risk to reliability.”

Robinson, who served as co-chairman of the task force, said the “fix-as-close-to-failure” strategy has proven problematic and costly in other situations. That is due, he said, because “sometimes you miscalculate and there is a failure before you fix.”

“When there has been a failure — and there has been many of those during the last decade — they have cost a fortune compared to what they would have cost had they been properly maintained,” Robinson said. “So it actually costs more money to do it that way.”

Robinson said navigation on inland waterways generates revenue that could be used by the federal government for regular maintenance, but it is not. The task force report referenced another study sponsored by the Transportation Research Board and the Corps that recommended the development of a standard asset management approach to operation and maintenance spending for inland navigation waterways, but that has yet to happen.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.